Художники существуют только потому, что мир несовершенен.

An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. Artists exist only because the world is imperfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.

– Andrei Tarkovsky

EmbassadorsAndrei Tarkovsky is widely considered one of the greatest directors of all time. He made most of his films under the constraints of Soviet censorship, films that were considered “ideologically dangerous because of their free-thinking approach to the mysteries of human existence,” writes one reviewer.

His second film, “Andrei Rublev,” “was banned by the Soviet authorities until 1971. It was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at four o’clock in the morning on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize – but it won one nonetheless, and was eventually distributed abroad partly to enable the authorities to save face.”

Less commonly known is that Tarkovsky also worked in theater. Spring of 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of his production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which ran in Moscow in 1977. My mother, Katya Kompaneyets, designed all 120 costumes for that play in collaboration with another artist.

She writes*:

In the winter of 1975, I got a grant from the Moscow Artists Union, which owned property outside Moscow where artists were provided with living quarters, a studio, printing presses and models for figure drawing. In Senezh, a village near the town of Solnechnogorsk, I shared a studio with Tengiz Mirzashvili, a celebrated artist from Tbilisi, Georgia. […] At that time, he was obsessed with the idea of organizing and designing a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

During our time together in Senezh, Mirzashvili went to Moscow […] and met Andrei Tarkovsky there. As was usual in those days, Mirzashvili was talking about “Macbeth” and Tarkovsky asked if he would like to work on a production of “Hamlet” with him instead. […] Mirzashvili asked me to collaborate with him on the costume design for the production—I had a background in textile and costume design. He couldn’t handle it alone since he lived in Tbilisi during the year. Excited by the project, I agreed even though I had two young children and knew it would put a lot of pressure on me.

But I couldn’t pass up working with Tarkovsky. Visually, his movies were stunning. I had seen his fascinating film “The Mirror” at a private screening and knew of his reputation as an independent-minded person and great director. Tarkovsky had his own views on the Soviet Union and on Russian history during a period when these ideas were strictly regulated and proscribed by the Soviet propaganda machine.

The strict regulation found its way to the production. My mother recalls that the year of rehearsals and preparation was “difficult and toxic due to Tarkovsky’s reputation as a dissident […] The theater administration was very opposed to our production and may have even gotten instructions from the Communist Party and the KGB to sabotage it.” In an email to me, my mother recalled that there were lines for blocks to get tickets to the premiere, but in the end, Tarkovsky’s “Hamlet” was only performed a few times. The official reason was that the lead actress fell ill, but it was never shown again. My mother added: “It wasn’t banned officially, just de facto. That’s how it often was in Soviet times.” She suspects that Party officials at the premiere didn’t like what they saw.

Among the few things remaining from the production are costume sketches painted in gouache by my mother. Instead of seeking historic accuracy to Shakespeare’s time, her drawings were inspired by Renaissance and early Renaissance paintings from Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger, some of my mother’s favorite artists. It turned out that Mirzashvili and Tarkovsvky had similar tastes, so my mother’s sketches were approved instantly.

She writes:

We always made intentional choices about the color scheme, thinking about how the costumes would look together onstage. We wanted the stage to look like a painting. Tarkovsky was very happy with our ideas and signed the sketches after approval (his signature is visible on the sketches). The costumes were then accurately produced from these sketches by seamstresses under my supervision.

In an interview about “Hamlet,” Tarkovsky wrote:

Hamlet hesitates because he cannot triumph. How should he be? What can he do? He can’t do anything. This will always be the way. But he must still say his word… And the result is a pile of corpses. And four captains carry him out. This is the meaning of Hamlet, not ‘to be or not to be,’ ‘to live or die.’ Nonsense! It has nothing to do with life and death. It has to do with the life of the human spirit, about the ability or inability to become acclimatized, about the responsibility of a great man and intellect before society.

Through working with him, my mother came to understand why Tarkovsky was so drawn to this play:

Tarkovsky viewed the story of Hamlet as autobiographical since it paralleled his life story: a creative personality and member of the intelligentsia fights for truth and justice in the context of twisted times. Hamlet’s effort to speak the truth proved fatal. Working on the production with constant sabotage by the theater’s administration—they would refuse to give us a stage for rehearsals, a storage room that held our costumes burned down, etc.—proved to be suicidal, too. We were constantly stressed and strained, which we found an apt metaphor for the play we were working on.

The sketches are now on display at the Santa Monica College Emeritus Art Gallery in Santa Monica, CA alongside fifteen paintings my mother made during approximately the same time period. Many of these paintings I had never seen before — they had been stored in closets or under beds for the last thirty five+ years.

Getting these works out of the Soviet Union was a feat in itself. My mother writes:

I applied for an exit visa in 1979 and was faced with the problem of getting permission to take the works out of the country and the inevitable need to pay to do so (as was Soviet regulation). […] The Soviet government felt they owned my works created within their borders and made me pay for each piece. I could only afford to pay for some since I also had to buy the plane tickets for myself and my two kids to leave the Soviet Union. In order to take these sketches and my own paintings out of the country, I had to go through two state-run committees. […] I had to bribe them with some pricey paintings from my collection, which I knew I couldn’t get out of the country anyway.

After they gave me the list of prices for my own works, I had to approve this with Ministry of Culture. These people were bureaucrats and very vicious. They were not happy with the prices and wanted me to pay more. I had to fight them, but they finally put the stamps of approval and visas on the backs of each piece. You can still see them on the backs of the sketches.

The show will be up until November 4 (details here). For more on my mother, visit her website or Houzz page. And if you read Russian, here’s her short essay reflecting on the collaboration with Tarkovsky.

* quotes from my mother come from the exhibition text, edited by me

all paintings are copyright Katya Kompaneyets and may not be reproduced without permission

On August 31, 1999, a handmade bomb exploded in a popular Moscow shopping mall. I was there, and watched rubble, dust, and screaming erupt around me.

Read more about the event and my changing understanding of this experience in an essay over at Pacific Standard.

Two important things I’ve learned since the piece was published:

  • Leaflets from a radical anti-consumerist organization were discovered near the site of the explosion. They read: “A hamburger not eaten to the end by the dead consumer is a revolutionary hamburger. Consumers: We don’t like your life style. And it is not safe for you.” (Any links to that organization have since been refuted.)
  • The video arcade where the bomb went off was called дунамитor “Dynamite.” Oof.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarian rule is truly possible only in countries that are large enough to be able to afford depopulation. The Soviet Union proved itself to be just such a country on at least three occasions in the twentieth century—teaching its citizens in the process that their lives are worthless.

From Masha Gessen’s exploration into the causes of Russia’s extremely high mortality rates. Read the whole thing at The New York Review of Books blog.

A Facebook friend who’d moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in his thirties recently posted a frustrated status update in which he complained about a younger writer. This writer had immigrated from Russia as a child, and now wrote an overwrought (in my friend’s opinion) essay about her conflicted identity. His basic point was that since she’d grown up in America, she was essentially American. Her memories of the old country were childish and vague or, perhaps, even second-hand, based on photographs and stories. Not only did she speak English without an accent, she was more comfortable expressing herself in English than in her first language. The only experience of adulthood she’d had was an American experience. Most importantly, Americans didn’t perceive her as “other.” Because of this, my friend said, her identity issues, if not entirely made up for the sake of her readers, were greatly exaggerated. She didn’t face the daily oppression of being treated like a foreigner, of having to distinguish herself from a stereotype that rose like a wall in people’s minds whenever they heard accented speech. She didn’t experience the difficulty of navigating around cultural knowledge gaps that persisted in older immigrants long after they mastered the vernacular of everyday life. So why, my friend wondered, why was she being such drama queen about the difficulty of her bifurcated identity? My friend found it unseemly. Nabokov, he argued, had never made a peep about his identity troubles.

Above quote from Anya Ulinich, in her introduction to Karolina Waclawiak’s novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms (bolding my own).

If her friend is right, I guess I should just stop writing. All my stuff is about complicated identities, but as an American-born daughter of Soviet immigrants, I suppose I have no real reasons to feel such complications. LOL.

“What country are we living in and in what year, when priests bless half-drunk nationalists that pelt people with rocks while the police look on and then load us into police cars?”

Excerpt from a gorgeous interview with “Olga” and “Irina,” a gay couple in Russia, from the forthcoming Gay Propaganda, a bilingual collection of edited interviews with LGBT Russians.

For a moving post-Valentine’s day read, give the whole interview a look (published at



In 2012, I wrote an obituary over at The Millions for famed literary translator (and champion of literary translation) Michael Henry Heim. I just learned from Susan Bernofsky’s Translationista blog that this year marks the passing of another great translator:

Daniel Weissbort, the much loved and respected translator of Russian poetry who directed the MFA Program in Translation at the University of Iowa for over thirty years, passed away several weeks ago at the age of 78.

Her blog features a thoughtful obituary dedicated to Weissbort and written by Bill Martin. Head there to check it out.

Just read a lovely experimental essay about immigrant identity and longing. It’s a piece by Anna Prushinskaya up at The Millions. An excerpt:

I set alarms to call my grandmother. I don’t call her for weeks that add up to months, and when I finally call her, I tell her that I will call again next week. I don’t call her next week. I think about calling her each time that I say I will call her. When I call her, I can hear the background noise of the street. She says regular things like that she misses me. She asks for great-grandchildren.

I read something recently that described stealing as lack of faith. We steal when we don’t have faith that the things we need will come. When I don’t call, I think I am stealing time. I do not have faith that at the end of the conversation about the weather there is something that turns out to be love.

It’s a day of reading Russian stuff. So then I read some ruminations about Russian language from a piece up at Jewcy:

I love Russian. I love how the phrases resonate with innate lyricism; how the constants punctuate speech with that distinctly Slavic bite[…]But I especially love how speaking the language makes me feel – like an edgier, snarkier me, with a stockpile of one-liners and wit that rarely makes its way into my English-language conversations. For these reasons and more, I’ve incurred countless raised eyebrows from fellow Russian-speakers when answering that obligatory question – where are you from? Because I’m not from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Baku, Tashkent, or some variation thereof—I grew up right here, between Brooklyn and Jersey.

The author, Samantha Shokin,  goes on to say:

My bilinguality was always the defining characteristic I shared about myself, and eventually kids started accusing me of sporting a foreign accent. I relished having a unique background that set me apart from the rabble, but hated the exclusion that came with it. In truth, my pseudo-immigrant pride was really a defense mechanism used to cope with a general feeling of “otherness” that I could never quite shake.

I resonate wit this a lot, though it was less a true bilingualism for me and more of a biculturalism, that I had knowledge of this other country, this other world, and place. I had a strange nostalgia growing up for a place I’d never been to, a country that no longer existed.

The author goes onto meet some newer Russian immigrants:

These friends were creative, exotic, and spoke Russian so beautifully that even expletives fizzled in my ears with charming effervescence. To them, I was a novelty; a bridge between cultures. I laughed at jokes I didn’t understand because I wanted so badly to. Soon I found myself wondering, would I be like them if I’d grown up there? If my parents had never left?

I ask myself these questions a lot. Who would I have been if I had been born in Moscow?

Remember my profile of Pat Singer, a community leader in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach? She talked about the shock she experienced upon the arrival of all these paranoid Soviet immigrants who were used to widespread shortages. Singer said: “What the hell is this? They were rude and pushy in the grocery stores, grabbing for toilet paper, not realizing it would still be there tomorrow.”

Well, I just uncovered a great photo to illustrate said point.



This photograph was taken by Dmitry Borko in the fall of 1990, during shortages in Moscow. A little more about the photographer is here.

I love how the beret and the chain of toilet paper across her chest make her look like a revolutionary wearing a sash of ammunition. See Pancho Villa, Mexican Revolutionary, below:



Screen Capture of "Russian Roller-Coaster" at

My translation of this wonderfully crazy short story by Andrei Krasnyashykh was just published at VICE magazine, as part of their ongoing VICE Reader series that features literary fiction and other literary snippets.

An excerpt of my translation:

It’s so simple, after all. God is everywhere. A shirt button fell off because God. They were showing a movie on TV because God. I got hungry because God. Women put on makeup because God. My neighbor’s dog got lost because God, because I poisoned it, because God wanted it this way, so I, so it wouldn’t bark at me.

God knows everything I don’t know. Like, I don’t know who lives in Brazil, but God knows. I don’t know why salt is white, like sugar, but not tasty, but God knows.

Sometimes I act like a mouse, because suddenly God thinks I’m a mouse. Then I think, and then suddenly God thinks I’m not a mouse, and I start to fly, because God suddenly thinks I’m a bird. And they say: you’re flying because you know how to fly, and maybe God doesn’t even know you know how to fly. I say: if God didn’t know that I know how to fly, then I’d be swimming, and God would have known I swim.

And they say: but we swim when God doesn’t know we swim. I say: And your tail and fins, where are they? Who swims without fins? Without fins shit swims. And when God knows I can swim, I swim with fins and a tail. Like you’re supposed to.

Read the whole story here. Read other entries in the VICE Reader series here.

Ack. I love Daniil Kharms, especially when he’s translated by Matvei Yankelevich.

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more.

From Ugly Duckling Presse.

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